Origins; Motivation; Worship

Last Sabbath, I had the privilege to being asked to teach on the subject of music for an afternoon programme at an Adventist church in the UK. The Q&A went very well, and I did take certain risks, but I gave the best and most honest answers that I could. But right towards the end, there were two issues which surfaced. As one of them has been chased up by the member in question, I have decided to address  both as seriously as I can in the name of pastoral education.

Firstly, despite the fact that I had peppered my presentation with Scripture, one person took me to task for not quoting Ellen White.

Now, I have spent quite some considerable time with EGW on the subject of music. Long before the widespread proliferation of the electronic versions of her complete writings, I had access to the original hard-copy 3-volume index to her writings and I looked up every single reference to music. She offers no comfort to either conservatives or liberals exclusively, because someone can always find a quotation to showcase the opposite viewpoint.The truth is that she is amazingly balanced, and that’s bad news for unbalanced church members on any side of an argument.

My family also own a set of the entire manuscript releases. On that subject, I once saw a quotation in Selected Messages Vol. 3 which I almost refused to believe was there. Anybody want to know what it was?

I saw [that] singing to the glory of God often drove [off] the enemy, and shouting would beat him back and give us the victory. I saw there was too little glorifying God in Israel and too little childlike simplicity {19MR 129.3}.

Shouting, huh?!

I grew up in an archetypal Adventist family and household and I have seen many of my childhood peers leave the faith. I’ve seen others adopt a secular Adventism. But some of us have kept the faith of our childhood – and you may be surprised to hear me say that this is not necessarily a good thing.

One of the most unhappening legacies contemporary Adventism has to deal with is the emotionally-unregulated-and-intellectually-dishonest way in which EGW’s writing is too-often used in our churches, but I am learning to turn my anger into compassion. I will have more to say about this elsewhere on this blog, but for now: whatever that church member wanted from me, my duty was to point to Scripture in the first and last instance, and let people be clear on that before I break out EGW – whose writings can be twisted to say whatever you want them to say if you are clever enough and your audience is ignorant/naive/stupid enough to accept without sufficient interrogation (not that our church members are good at asking the right questions, but more on THAT another time!).

Bottom line: if your point cannot be made from Scripture alone, then you will be using EGW in a way that she herself never ordained (see Willie White, her son, on this subject).

~

The second is more complicated. I was making the point that a significant number of SDA conservatives have been very publicly disparaging about choruses and contemporary praise songs – arguing that only the richness and depth of the hymn tradition is worthy for worship in the sanctuary. The origins and dimensions of hymnody are another question – but perhaps I can stop to offer one anecdote and two serious points on this subject from my own life.

As an undergraduate, my father studied at the University of Edinburgh, and eventually he became a lodger in the home of the late Professor Sidney Michaelsen, one of the pioneering computer scientists of the last century. His wife, whom I knew as Auntie Kitty (short for Catherine) had been born and raised in apartheid South Africa, and one of her enduring memories was of her people (i.e. white people) busy singing hymns and reading the Bible week in and week out whilst treating black people in a most appalling manner.

THIS was why she could NEVER be a Christian. But there’s a nice ending – when, in her 70’s she took ill, shortly before she died, she did ask my mother to pray for her.

To certain of my American Adventist brethren: you need to be ready to explain to secular people how the likes of Thomas Jefferson could practise Christianity and slavery at the same time, using the apropos of the Anglican church – especially its liturgy and music.

To certain of my British Adventist brethren: you need to show the argument of only using hymns when these same hymns were sung by people who saw no dissonance in singing them whilst enslaving our black ancestors.

~

In the end, profound truths can be stated in few words as well as many, and going back to the afternoon programme last week, an example I gave the congregation was the well-known chorus of the Michael W. Smith song Awesome God. This link relates why I now use this song as an example of a ‘simple’ chorus with more basic profundity than some of the current contents of the 1985 Seventh-Day Adventist Hymnal.

Now, if I tell you that the choir member in question was a new Christian who was anything but secure in their faith (and even their own identity) but who loved gospel music and had now accepted that these songs were about Truth – not just a story – then here is my first pastoral point: the actual theology in this chorus is doctrinally beyond dispute if you are a Bible-believing Christian. Second, despite my ‘superior knowledge ‘of both the Adventist faith and of music, I had taken this chorus for granted, and to be shown more of the real depth of that theology by someone whose theological literacy was sketchy at best was as genuinely warming as it was humbling. I saw God at work in that person’s life, and that He was using that person to work in my life too. And so, I’ve been sharing this for some years now.

~

But the song was written by Michael W. Smith, who by virtue of being a fully-paid up member of the CCM community has found himself under heavy artillery fire by all manner of non-Adventists who are busy making the conservative Adventists feel better about themselves by putting the boot into CCM, into ‘praise and worship, into drums and more. And for some daft reason, whole swathes of SDAs have been lapping this stuff up gleefully and browbeating everyone who doesn’t declare hatred for CCM just like them.

I have some news for these people.

An SDA church member can be deeply ‘conservative’ in their music aesthetics, but SPECTACULARLY unbiblical in their theology.

An SDA church member can be deeply committed to (for example) contemporary gospel music – with drums – and not completely reject everything in the CCM canon – and still be fully commited to ‘Adventist biblical/theological orthodoxy’ – including recognising the validity and legitimacy of EGW.

~

As I stated in the programme, I used to be someone who insisted that we had to know the provenance and origin of every single song that we would sing in church. I was tough and unbending on this. I even took people to task for doing music from Handel’s Messiah in a church service, because it was not written for the explicit worship of God in a sacred service, and so in my mind good Adventists should perform Messiah – just not on Sabbath!

This was a very unpopular notion in some quarters but I stuck to it like superglue – until a sequence of events which forced me to face the fact that I – in my non-divine nature – could never truly know the spiritual condition of every single writer or composer of a sacred piece of music. I could not know who sang like an angel but who had already rejected the Holy Spirit in their hearts – and because God does not strike them dead, I might well assume that they were okay with God.

To take that position was placing a burden unto all of us that was ultimately impossible for mere human beings. 1 Corinthians 9:27 makes it clear that one could preach and others be saved but themselves be lost.

So I was very sorry that I had placed such an unbiblical burden on my fellow Levites and church members. In this regard, I had become an excellent Pharisee [the cynical might say that as such, I made an excellent Adventist church member].

~

This was the context in which I listed to the church member in question state that on the basis of their research, there is no way that we should be singing anything by Michael W. Smith.

I asked the person if they knew the origins of the hymn ‘Guide Me O, Thou Great Jehovah.’ They did not. But they had still sung the hymn. I want to commend the person for graciously accepting that if they did not know about this hymn, then they would look it up and learn. Now, since last Sabbath, the person has not found anything untoward about this hymn and raised that issue with their pastor. The result is this blog post that you are currently reading.

Note the theological argument:

  1. ‘Awesome God’ has words which – at surface-level – are good and Biblical.
  2. However, the songwriter is very, very dodgy.
  3. I know that he is dodgy because of my own research [most likely on the internet or in certain printed publications or AV sermon material].
  4. Because he is dodgy, I cannot in all good conscience sing his songs.
  5. No-one else should sing or promote any of his songs either – because he is dodgy.
  6. He may not even have been referring to the real God – he may have been referring to a false God. So the words sound good, but they are not true words.

Okay.

To whom much is given, much is required.

There are a great many websites in the evangelical world dedicated to exposing error and sharing truth. It is always a dangerous exercise to use those websites to find pro-Adventist arguments. I used to use some of these sites myself – until I discovered that we SDAs are considered to be positively dangerous by LOTS of people in the evangelical world. So how advisable or intelligent is it for an Adventist to take an argument from such a site, when that same site would most likely deny that a Seventh-Day Adventist is a Christian?

Is the church member’s only ‘proof’ of Michael W. Smith’s ‘not being a true Christian’ limited to the ‘evidence’ assembled by these websites? If this was a court of law that the whole world could see, would a jury of the world believe that they had been ‘fair’ to Michael W. Smith? I can see that for sure, he has made what I personally would describe as very dubious decisions at times – but despite the fact that Martin Luther features heavily in Chapter 8 of The Great Controversy, he did hold onto certain doctrines that as Bible-believing Christians, we could never endorse. [Indeed, there are certain skeletons in the closet that should remain undiscussed in this blog post, because there are too many ‘unlearned and unstable’ people in our church who are ‘wresting’ (sic – KJV) all of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16) and they will not be able to handle these things, see the big picture, and remain faithful.] Despite this, as one of the greatest of the Reformers, Luther remains one of my personal heroes.

It is one thing as SDA church members to sing hymns by Sunday-keeping Christians who believed that people go to heaven when they die. It is another to sing hymns and songs by Sunday-keeping Christians who have denied the Sabbath.

But what about a hymn written by a preacher who fully believed in the doctrine of predestination? If predestination is true, we may preach, and folks may get baptised, but if you think through the implications of this doctrine, a Christian can never be secure in their salvation, because God might not have pre-ordained them, and so they might still be going to hell [to the theologians: yes, I know it’s more complex, but those extra niceties will still bring us back to this same point. I have the arsenal to prove that if necessary].

What kind of Christian mind could believe an idea like this?! What kind of loving God would NOT allow genuinely free will? If we were to make a philosophical statement about a theological concept, it might look like this:

Jesus Christ did not die on the cross merely for our sins. He died so that we might have the right to life – and the right to free will.

Jesus died for our free will.

Let’s check back. ‘Awesome God’ was rejected because its author was deemed to be dodgy. Forget the song – the author is dodgy. Never mind the fact that what I actually know is much less than what I don’t know. I have the right to judge him – and I say: he’s dodgy, so get rid of his song.

But the person espousing this point of view has been singing ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ without ever taking the time to interrogate its origins – which now means that they have fallen foul of their own ‘code.’ It does get worse, because a Seventh-Day Adventist cannot endorse the doctrine of predestination – which means that they should NEVER sing a song by anyone who has such a warped view of divine grace – because that is NOT the God of Scripture.

It’s time to go back to the Good Samaritan, and by now, someone knows where I am going. The neighbour was not the member of the house of Israel with the ‘correct’ theology. The neighbour was the dude from some left-field sect with off-key theology.

As a theologian, when I understood that, I knew in a way that I’d never known before that God is less interested in us human beings having the right theology than He is in seeing what we do with what we have. The author of ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ spent 43 years serving God from the back of a horse up and down Wales. William Williams is one of the greatest names in the Welsh revival – which was ‘Calvinist’ as opposed to ‘Arminian.’

What are we doing with what God has given us?

~

If a person is going to reject ‘Awesome God,’ then I respect the principle that they must be true to their conscience. But the burden of proof is too high for me to support and endorse this as an honest Biblical position. Our job is not to take apart the motives of others when we have no means to honestly do so. It is to do the best we can with what God has given us.

We are simply not qualified to reject everything Michael W. Smith ever wrote and – despite the fact that the actual words of his chorus are totally true – to then do the work of God (the sole Judge) and say that perhaps he was not even referring to the true God.

Predestination is one of the most corrupt doctrines in the wider Christian world. This was exactly the area over which the brothers Wesley and George Whitefield separated – constituting one of the greatest losses of the Reformation. The Wesleys’ preached ‘Free Grace’ but Whitefield held onto Calvin (who in turn had held onto Augustine, but that’s another story) and his ‘doctrine of the elect.’

“But…” I hear someone saying, “…maybe we could question his conversion, because if God was with him, he would have abandoned Calvin…!”

~

NO.

NO.

NO.

We batter the Pharisees because we see how angry they made Jesus. Their habit of asking people for a higher standard than God Himself requires isn’t something we modern-day Adventists should scoff too loudly about – because we do it too. I used to do that – i.e. ask too much of people – and then judge their spirituality by their willingness to give in to our man-made standards. I submit to all of us that these factors are part of why our church lost 5.9 million members worldwide between 2000-2012, and not a single bit of the gloss that is being poured on this subject at the 2015 General Conference changes the fact that we are very, very poor reflectors of the New Testament Church. I now believe that we will never have a consensus on music or worship in our church until persecution comes…for only then – when what we believe makes a literal difference to life or death – will we find liturgical (and musical) unity.

~

All readers, as ever, you will make up your own mind. Thank you for your time and God bless you!

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4 comments

  1. Mike Johnson · July 4, 2015

    The interesting thing for me is that whatever we dislike about a person, habits or theology; they’re present in our lives too. We say, preach things and then live the opposite; we sing songs and don’t ‘live the life I sing about in my songs’ (Mahalia). Your point about the Good Samaritan is well made and one I use to show that God will use people and methods that we do not approve of to do His work. I think of Darius overthrowing Babylon.

    During some interviews on Light FM at the GC in San Antonio, we keep hearing from Adventist music luminaries about Little Richard, a man who seems to be living a life opposite to his Adventist upbringing and yet he travels with Spirit of Prophecy books and whenever people ask for his autograph, he says yes but only if he can give them a book (Steps to Christ and Great Controversy).

    If I was to examine the motives behind every song, I won’t have time to sing. I concur with your point about making the most of what we have; if a song challenges my relationship with Jesus, if it lifts my thoughts heavenward, if it blows my mind about the majesty and greatness of God, if it breaks my heart into submission, it has achieved its purpose, regardless of who wrote it and how they lived their lives. I can’t judge my relationship with my God based on the lifestyle of others.

    Ellen White will not save me; I’m not dismissing her, but she adds colour and background when I cannot find it in Scripture, or I need some further insight. The earlier comment about you not referring to her is symptomatic of the fact that we are a people who look to others for our answers. We want others to tell us how we should live, when Christ has already told us and demonstrated it. For some, I am sure that if Jesus showed up at church and spoke, they’d want to see what EGW has to say on what He has said.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theomusicologist · July 5, 2015

      I shouldn’t laugh, but…

      Couldn’t agree more with that last paragraph.

      Like

  2. Andy Kydd · July 4, 2015

    Very well written blog. Just a cautionary note, whilst “Awesome God” might have been popularised by MW Smith, it was actually written by Rich Mullins: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Awesome_God

    When He rolls up His sleeves
    He ain’t just putting on the ritz
    (Our God is an awesome God)

    There’s thunder in His footsteps
    And lightning in His fists
    (Our God is an awesome God)

    And the Lord wasn’t joking when He kicked ’em out of Eden
    It wasn’t for no reason that He shed His blood
    His return is very close and so you better be believing that
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    And when the sky was starless
    In the void of the night
    (Our God is an awesome God)

    He spoke into the darkness
    And created the light
    (Our God is an awesome God)

    Judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom
    Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross
    I hope that we have not too quickly forgotten that
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    He reigns from Heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    (Our God is an awesome God)
    He reigns from Heaven above
    (He reigns from Heaven above)
    With wisdom, power, and love
    (With wisdom, power, and love)
    Our God is an awesome God

    Our God is an awesome God
    Our God is an awesome God
    Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/rich-mullins/awesome-god-lyrics/#C54E8R2zBMU9SBsP.99

    Like

    • theomusicologist · July 5, 2015

      Thank you very much for the affirmation, but also for the necessry correction herein! I have given some thought to how I failed to discover this before and I’m pretty sure I know now. It will be the same for the church member in question and others. Thank you for doing the ‘research’ more rigorously than we did – and so while I accept that this song is by Rich Mullins, not Michael W. Smith, the good news is that the message of this blog post was not based on the specificity of authorship in that sense – but on the principles that govern our thought. I had planned to add a rider to the blog post, but in learning how easily Adventists can be distracted by little things, I will leave your comment and my response to it down here for those who are savvy enough and patient enough to read the comments as well.

      Like

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